This Radish Will Destroy Your Willpower!
We often think about willpower as a static trait. Some people have it, and some people don’t. One might ask, “are you a person with good willpower?” in the same way that they would ask “are you left-handed?” or “are you a natural blonde?”
However, psychology researchers have been taking a closer look at personal willpower. What is it? Who has it? And how can we get more if it? As it turns out, willpower is a lot like a muscle, which can be both made bigger and stronger, and can become fatigued when overworked.
Cookies and Radishes
In a recent study, a group of college students was asked to fast for several hours to participate in an investigation regarding “taste.” They were then split into two groups, a “cookie group” and a “radish group.” The cookie group was allowed to eat cookies and chocolate. The radish group was allowed to eat…you guessed it, only radishes. Both groups were put into a single room containing several plates of goodies, and plates of the less enticing radishes. To maximize temptation, the participants were left unsupervised.
While unsupervised, everyone was being watched via a small hidden window. The researchers took notes as the radish group participants stared longingly at the cookies…and then sat down to bite into a nice raw radish. According to the researchers, some participants from the radish group picked up cookies to smell them. One student even dropped a cookie on the floor, only to pick it up and put it back in haste. In the end, the radish group students used their willpower and refrained from partaking in any cookie goodness.
Next, all the participants were taken to another room, where they were told that they were participating in a second study—this one investigating intelligence. All participants were then given a geometry problem that was unsolvable! Hence, the goal wasn’t to see who could solve the problem. The goal was to see how long each participant would spend before giving up.
The researchers found that participants in the cookie group (as well as a control group) generally worked on the task for about 20 minutes before throwing in the towel. In contract, the radish group participants gave up after only about 8 minutes.
This, in the realm of research statistics, is a huge variation! The study suggests that the radish-eating participants had spent the majority of their willpower resisting the temptation to partake of the sweets. When it came to the geometry problem, they were on empty!
Willpower and Couples
Practicing Psychologist Don Baucom was wondering why, after a hard day of work, his couples counseling clients would come home and fight with one another. Using the principles above, he realized that after a long day, his clients had no willpower left to be patient, kind, or accommodating. Hence, he gave his clients a counter-intuitive recommendation—leave work and come home early! He found that when his clients came home early from work, they would spend more time together, but argue less!
*Many of the studies above are present in the work “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Drs. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.